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Saturday, August 28, 1999

Baja Official Stalled Airlift of U.S. Patient, Family Says

Accident: Money for a bond was demanded before man hurt in car crash could be flown to San Diego, they contend. Official denies the allegations.

By TONY PERRY, Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO--A human rights official with the Baja California government refused to enable a critically injured American to be rushed by helicopter to San Diego for medical treatment this week before a cash payment was made to Mexican authorities, the injured man's family said Friday.

The family of Donald Kraft, 44, says the official, who was involved in a traffic accident Tuesday with the San Diego County man near Ensenada, would not clear the way for Kraft to be taken to San Diego until the family paid several thousand dollars for a bond in compliance with Mexican law.

Kraft's relatives say they told Mexican authorities that the human rights official initially asked for cash for himself. Instead the family eventually paid some $7,000 to Mexican authorities for a bond or a fine and for emergency medical services.

Bonds or fines are collected in Baja accidents that are considered criminal matters, but the human rights official could have expedited the airlift if he had not pressed the matter, according to the head of a private organization that assists accident victims on both sides of the border.

The human rights official, Antonio Garcia Sanchez, denied Friday night that he had asked for money.

He also said other authorities made the decision to treat the accident as a criminal matter.

"I don't have the authority to do such a thing," Garcia said.

In an interview aired by San Diego television station KUSI, Garcia said it was Mexican police who demanded a payment before Kraft could be taken out of the country, in accordance with Mexican law requiring the posting of bond when foreigners involved in traffic accidents that are considered criminal are to leave the country.

Kraft, an unemployed truck driver from Valley Center, was vacationing with his family when the collision occurred with Garcia, attorney general of human rights for Baja California, who was driving with another Baja official.

Only after Kraft's in-laws made the cash payment to Mexican authorities was Kraft taken by helicopter to Mercy Hospital in San Diego, where he was in critical condition, paralyzed with a broken neck. Some 18 hours elapsed before Kraft was brought to San Diego, even though Mexican doctors treating him pleaded with Garcia, according to the head of the private accident assistance organization.

Celia Diaz, executive director of the Chula Vista-based Binational Emergency Committee, said she spoke with Garcia just hours after the accident. Alerted by Ensenada doctors to Kraft's plight, Diaz said, she begged Garcia not to insist that the Kraft family put up money.

"We have never dealt with anyone who had this kind of attitude in 26 years of helping people across the border," Diaz said.

She said that she talked to Garcia at 3 a.m. Wednesday and that he asked for 20 minutes to think over her request to expedite Kraft's release. "When I called back in 20 minutes, he was gone," she said.

The Mexican consul in San Diego issued a statement Friday expressing regret for the accident but saying traffic accidents are the responsibility of the Public Attorney for Common Matters in Ensenada.

Kraft was in Baja with his wife, Melody, a kindergarten teacher, and their sons--ages 5, 10 and 13--when their Ford pickup collided with a sedan driven by Garcia.

David Kraft, the injured man's brother, said he received a panicked telephone call from his sister-in-law about 1 a.m., about eight hours after the accident.

Kraft said she told him that doctors wanted to arrange for her husband's immediate transfer to a trauma unit in San Diego, for fear that his injuries could worsen if he did not receive quick attention.

Diaz said she was told the same thing by a Mexican trauma surgeon.

The injured man was loaded aboard a helicopter only after his in-laws provided the cash: $2,300 for Mexican authorities as a bond or fine, and $4,700 for the helicopter and emergency care, according to the victim's brother.

David Kraft said that Garcia initially demanded money for himself but that when other officials got involved he dropped that demand but would not drop his insistence that the crash be dealt with as a criminal matter. If he had, Diaz said, Donald Kraft could have been released immediately.

Times correspondent Joseph Trevino contributed to this story.